With Opening Day approaching on Thursday, teams across baseball, including the Baltimore Orioles, are finalizing their rosters to begin the season. As such, many players who spent Spring Training with the Orioles will be headed to Norfolk later this week and start the season in Triple-A.
Baltimore Orioles farm system outlook: Norfolk Tides
The most controversial demotion to Norfolk was top pitching prospect Grayson Rodriguez who the Orioles announced on Monday would not be on the Opening Day roster in Baltimore. With Rodriguez in Norfolk, Orioles fans in the Chesapeake region of Virginia can expect to see a potential MLB ace for the next couple of weeks until he is called up. Along with Rodriguez, pitching prospects such as Kyle Brnovich, DL Hall, and Drew Rom will also start the season in Norfolk.
On the hitting side, there are several notable prospects that will start the season in Norfolk and hopefully find their way to Baltimore before the season ends. The most notable hitting prospects in Triple-A for the Orioles are Colton Cowser, Connor Norby, Joey Ortiz, and Jordan Westburg. Let's look more closely at each position group and the prospects who will don the green and orange.
As I mentioned earlier, the Orioles illicited strong opinions from the fanbase when they announced that Rodriguez would start the season in Triple-A. Regardless of how you feel about the move, Rodriguez will likely start on Opening Day for the Tides after a strong 2022 that was cut short by injury. Rodriguez had a 2.20 ERA in 14 starts in Norfolk last year and would almost certainly have made his big league debut if not for a shoulder injury suffered during midseason. Following the injury, he struggled in several brief outings during Spring Training this year and finished with a 7.04 ERA in 15.1 innings. Despite this, Grayson should provide quality starts and give opposing hitters a difficult time for however long he stays in Norfolk.
For me, the most surprising young pitcher to start the season in Triple-A is DL Hall. Hall made his Major League debut last August and struggled in his brief stint in Baltimore to a 5.93 ERA in 13.2 innings pitched. However, Hall did have a promising 1.65 FIP in that stretch which suggests that he ran into a lot of hard luck.
The start of the season will likely be used as a tune-up for Hall as the O's probably want him to move into the starting rotation at some point this season. Getting a few starts under his belt in Norfolk should help him long-term as control has been an issue for the 24-year-old over the past few years in pro ball. As for Brnovich and Rom, both pitchers will likely spend the majority of the season in Triple-A so fans in Norfolk will have plenty of opportunity to see them during the 2023 campaign.
There will be three batters within MLB Pipeline's top 100 prospects list who will start the season in Norfolk in Colton Cowser, Joey Ortiz, and Jordan Westburg. Cowser and Westburg were both high draft picks from recent seasons while Ortiz was a fourth round pick in the 2019 draft. Each of the three players will have the chance to play in Baltimore with a strong season in Norfolk.
A first-round pick in 2021 out of Sam Houston State, Cowser turned 23 years old last week and was 4.4 years younger than the average Triple-A player last season. He has quickly progressed through the minors as he played in Aberdeen, Bowie, and Norfolk last year and finished the season with a combined .278/.406/.469 slash line between the three levels. He struggled a bit in Norfolk with a .219/.339/..429 line but his plate discipline impressed across all levels.
Over the course of the season, he had an impressive 15% walk rate which is notable because plate discipline is a difficult skill to master for many hitters but a skill that can help players get on base even when they are in the midst of a slump. He was also 16-for-17 on stolen base attempts in Aberdeen but did not attempt a steal in his brief time in Norfolk. The O's have shown a willingness to steal bases more than many other teams, especially with Jorge Mateo and Cedric Mullins leading the American League in that category last year, and this ability could come into play for Cowser in Norfolk and Baltimore in 2023.
A lesser-known Orioles prospect, Ortiz has quietly risen through the system while being overshadowed by more high-profile infield prospects such as Gunnar Henderson, Jackson Holliday, and Westburg. Regardless of where he plays, Ortiz has great bat-to-ball skills and has hit for a high average at every level of the minors. In a brief Norfolk stint last year, Ortiz hit .346/.400/.567 in 115 plate appearances with 4 home runs.
He hit 19 homers collectively between Bowie and Norfolk last year so he has shown sneaky pop as well. At New Mexico State, Ortiz hit .342 in three seasons which led to his fourth round selection. The pandemic hurt his development as he did not play in 2020 and struggled a bit in a short 2021 campaign. If Ortiz can build off his 2022 season, expect him to bat near the top of the lineup for the Tides and expect to see him in Baltimore before the season ends.
Similar to Cowser, Westburg was a high draft pick in the pandemic-era of Mike Elias' regime. He was the 30th pick in the 2020 draft out of Mississippi State and has played well in his two professional seasons. He is a seasoned shortstop and should play there for Norfolk a lot and could also stick as a shortstop at the Major League level.
Of the three position players mentioned, Westburg is the closest to the big leagues as some fans thought he had a shot to make the Opening Day roster. Regardless, he will start the season in Norfolk where he hit .274/.361/.508 in 94 games last year. His power numbers were notable, especially for a shortstop. He hit 18 homers in Norfolk and 27 overall in 138 games. If Westburg gets off to a hot start, he might have a brief stay in Norfolk before joining the Orioles in Baltimore.
Additional Players We Could See in Norfolk
Of course, the Opening Day roster is not indicative of how the season will play out for Norfolk and there are many more prospects who could join the team throughout the season. After a strong Arizona Fall League and Spring Training, Heston Kjerstad should make the jump to Triple-A fairly early in the season. Kjerstad was the number two pick in the 2020 draft but had a notably late start to his professional career because of the pandemic and some health issues he dealt with. He will start the season in Bowie but could earn the promotion to Norfolk early in the season with a hot start.
The only other top 10 prospects within the O's organization who have yet to play in Norfolk are Jackson Holliday and Coby Mayo. Both Holliday and Mayo were drafted out of high school by the Orioles and Holliday is still several seasons away from the big leagues. Mayo will start the season in Bowie and will likely stay there for several months before making the jump to Triple-A.
On the pitching side, prospects like Cade Povich and Chayce McDermott will start the season in Bowie and could make the jump with a hot start. Regardless, 2023 should be a fun season in Norfolk and the first several months could be the last opportunity to see the core of young prospects at the minor league level that the Orioles have built up. The Tide start the season on Friday in Durham against the Rays' Triple-A affiliates, Durham Bulls. The first opportunity to see the team at Harbor Park will come next Tuesday as they open a six-game series with the Gwinnett Stripers.